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NEXT L.A. | Dialogue: Black Poverty

America Ignoring Youth's Plight

June 04, 1996

From a speech on race relations to Town Hall Los Angeles by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.).


The fact is that, economically, black America is in the best and worst of times. Roughly one-third of black America can now be called middle class. Black Americans distinguish themselves in virtually every field of endeavor. But more than 30% of blacks live in grinding poverty. Many can't find a job, can't get credit to buy a house or start a businesses and increasingly can't make ends meet for necessities, much less save for the future.

Indeed, the unemployment rate for blacks is routinely twice that for whites. Also, the earnings of black college-educated men have only recently reached parity with those of white men with high school diplomas. Of greater significance is the fact that 46% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 17% of white youngsters.

Without question, disintegrating family structure contributes to black poverty. The average income for a two-parent black family is three times the income of a single-parent white family. But poverty is more than a black problem. It is a broad national systemic issue flowing from inadequate economic growth unfairly shared.

Indeed, there are 16 million more white Americans in poverty than there are black Americans in poverty. But many whites feel it is primarily a black problem. Because of lingering racial attitudes and stereotypes, marshaling resources to cope with it becomes more difficult. In that sense, racism contributes to black poverty and white poverty, too.

The conflict between generations in the black community is real and the primary responsibility for bridging it rests with the black community. There is a breakdown in communications and a breakdown in values. When I left Missouri for college in 1961, the number of children in St. Louis born to a single parent was 13%; now it is 68%. Among black children it is 86%. In some cities, such as Baltimore, 70% of the African American males are either in jail, on probation or awaiting trial.

The idealistic call of Martin Luther King Jr. or the disciplined march of Muslims who have declared war on black self-destruction can't compete with the latest gangsta rapper who from the TV screen calls young people to a life of crime, violence, white hate and female abuse.

Increasingly, a generation with little to lose pulls the trigger without remorse and risks nothing for their neighbor and invests little in their own futures. They live for today, some because that's all they have ever done and others because they believe that their tomorrow will only be worse.

Is the plight of this element of young black America an isolated cancer, or a harbinger of all our futures? Will the rest of America respond or turn its back? White Americans seem to have ignored the devastation in many American cities. It's almost as if the kids with AIDS, the gang members with guns, the teenagers lost to crack cocaine, the young rape victims whose only self-respect comes from having another child, don't exist for most white Americans.

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